Review: ARK: Survival Evolved (PS4)

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ARK_artAt the climax of Billy Wilder’s brilliant 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) pumps three slugs into Joe Gillis (William Holden), leaving his body floating in her swimming pool and shortly thereafter gives us a classic line of dialog as well as one of the best endings in movie history.

ARK: Survival Evolved is, in its own quirky manner, a digital Norma Desmond all made up and ready for her close-up and you’ll be playing the part of poor Joe Gillis, but in a remake of Groundhog Day with a hell of a lot more dinosaurs and without the romance angle. Translation: expect to die in this game. A lot. That out of the way, the sheer amount of things to do here makes it somewhat fantastic if you put aside a few nagging “warts and all” issues.  Then again, hell, it’s basically like dumping all the best toys you ever had as a kid onto the floor and making the biggest, craziest “epic” playset you can think of. Except the toys bite back harder and might make you want to bite your controller in half on occasion.

 

 

Based on that last bit alone, Studio Wildcard‘s game is worth the $60 with a few caveats. On the technical side, expect performance highs (great looking creatures and often gorgeous environments) and lows (frame rate dips, assorted glitches, too tiny font text) along with plenty of patch updates (five since release day). Unlike poor Joe Gillis, the game is also bullet-proof (and unlike Norma Desmond’s career, critic-proof) thanks to a very dedicated legion of longtime players since it first appeared on PC as an Early Access game back in 2015 who don’t give a hoot what anyone says. The overall kitchen sink sandbox approach works quite well on one hand as the game is never shy about giving you a ton of choice in most areas. But yes, it’s a case where patience and even more practice is required in order to fully enjoy all the rides in this Jurassic Park meets Minecraft meets sci-fi/action survival hybrid.

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Review: Defenders of Ekron (PS4)

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Like your games of the semi-arcade space shooter variety with assorted adventure elements mixed in to shake things up? Want something that’s pretty cool but tough to play for a nice price? Well, step right up and snag a copy of Defenders of Ekron, currently available on PS4 and PC.

If you’re one of those gamers who won’t keep silent about some games being “too casual” these days, get ready for one that’s ready to get you jumping up and down on your controller if you’re that type of person. Well, PS4 controllers aren’t cheap, so maybe get one of these and keep it handy. Granted, the challenge is a welcome one overall if you’re willing to jump in and explore.

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Mixing single player twin stick “bullet hell” shooting with a top-down view, gear upgrades and a few different styles of play is what keeps the game fresh. Chilean developer In Vitro Games has cooked up a pretty cool sleeper that’s well worth the price point.  Somewhat like DOGOS and to some extent, the top-down levels in Thunder Force II, the ability to explore areas at will makes for a nice change of pace. Add in puzzle-themed missions, some great boss battles and a ton of other surprises and you get a game that’s pretty deep overall.

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Some Kiwami Films For Yakuza Fans

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With Yakuza Kiwami out now and hopefully selling well for Sega as an evergreen title into the future, overall interest in the long-running series over the past few years seems high enough that I’m thinking some of you folks might be interested in a few of the many Japanese gangster films out there. If you’re new to them, this very short list of recommendations may pack a ton of surprises on a few fronts.

If you’ve played Yakuza 0, Yakuza 4 or more recently, Kiwami (which means “extreme” in Japanese), you’ll very clearly see cinematic influences in abundance throughout the series. Even though the games are set in a more modern version of Japan, most of these films have very similar scenes that show how in general, some criminal behavior never really changes and it’s quite a draw for some who choose to live that lifestyle despite the risks.

Anyway, just step into this alley over here and I’ll set you up right… or set you upright after setting you up, right?

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Cops Vs Thugs * – Prolific director Kinji Fukusaku made a number of great yakuza-themed films, but this 1975 gem is probably his best. Notable for a brutal interrogation scene where an actor playing a gangster is actually beaten by actors playing crooked cops (the rehearsal footage is included as one of the bonuses), that scene is somehow very tame once added to the assorted forms of other violence on display.

When crooked but loyal to a fault cop (Bunta Sugawara) and his equally crooked and loyal to a fault Yakuza pal Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) clash with a gung-ho young detective who wants all corruption purged from the force, plenty of mayhem ensues. There’s not a dull moment at all here and it’s also a case of seemingly minor characters having major roles as the plot twists pile up.

Fukusaku’s candid camera catches it all, sometimes tilting mid-action during certain scenes and freeze-framing during others for added emphasis. The imminent threat of random violence and no clear black and white heroes makes you almost root for both sides. But you’ll see that there’s no winners here when all is said and done. This one’s a must despite the kind of goofy title as well as a great way to embellish your Kiwami experience outside the game.

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Review: Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition

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Good luck finding one of these, folks!

NT_tinyPlaying Night Trap after about 15 or so years away from any version brought back a few sour memories. Not those about the game’s campy/cheesy vibe and still somewhat clunky gameplay that’s better if you don’t use a walkthrough to blow through your purchase within the first hour of the day you buy it.  Nope, I ended up thinking too hard about how a bunch of overly zealous politicians lied their asses off to the public (and themselves) about an intentionally silly videogame being a potential root cause for real-life violence and mayhem.

Just as they did with comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, and Hollywood movies before that (I’d include Prohibition in this as well, but let’s not get too carried away today), Night Trap was made an easy scapegoat back in 1993 along with Mortal Kombat and a few other games deemed inappropriate for kids who very likely knew they weren’t being brainwashed into axe murderers en masse. As a result, it ended up selling out in spots, was briefly taken off the market but eventually reemerged on 3DO, Sega 32X, MS-DOS, and Mac OS, turning absolutely no one into a sex fiend or blood-lusting serial killer (well, the last time I checked, at least). In terms of the remaster/re-release, Screaming Villains has definitely delivered the definitive Night Trap experience, which is kind of like saying you’re getting dented canned tuna for dinner, but it’s the best damn dented canned tuna you can buy.

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Blu-Ray Review: Brain Damage

BD_AV090 (Custom)I somehow missed out on Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage when it was first released back in 1987, but it’s been on my very long list of films to see for quite some time.  Arrow Video’s recent restoration is pretty awesome and is filled to the brim with some great bonus features. Depending on your tastes this is one of those outrageously creative films that you’ll love or hate, but like Henenlotter’s other exploitation flicks (the three Basket Case movies, Frankenhooker, Bad Biology), your best bet is to jump in feet first and enjoy the wild ride.

When a somewhat phallic-shaped brain-eating parasite named Aylmer (or Elmer) escapes from the apartment of the elderly couple keeping it as a twisted addiction source and ends up a few doors away with a new host, Brian (Rick Herbst), things get gory quite quickly. The old couple had been feeding Aylmer fresh from the meat market calf brains thinking they could sate his hunger, but you know how these things go in movies like this, right? Yes, there’s an explanation for how the parasite ended up in the apartment of that couple, but that comes later on in the film and I’m not telling.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Big Knife

The Big KnifeAA014One of those interesting “message” pictures of the 50’s, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 filmed version of Clifford Odets’ 1949 play The Big Knife works pretty well as a sort of riff on Sunset Boulevard, packing in mostly solid performances from a fine cast. Yes, there’s a certain “stagey” feeling to the film as well as a few scenery-chomping bits colliding like lumbering wrestlers in a busted ring. But it works well enough to leave an impression with a few memorable “noirish” scenes that make for a powerful viewing experience.

Jack Palance (trust me, just roll with it and it works) is Charles Castle, hot Hollywood hunk with a particularly pernicious problem. He’s set to sign a seven-year contract extension with studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger in full tilt gloriously nasty mode), but his wife Marion (Ida Lupino) has had it with Charlie’s womanizing ways which obviously threaten their somewhat busted marriage and properly raising their young son. As the film begins, the harried couple is estranged and already living apart, but Charlie is constantly working “hard” on keeping the rubble of their happier days somewhat upright. Charlie also finds out Marion has an open marriage proposal from Horatio “Hank” Teagle (Wesley Addy), something that annoys him to no end because he’s something of a hypocrite.

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Review: Rock of Ages II: Bigger & Boulder (PS4)

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Warning: This review may be full of rock puns or something. Or not, as I’m writing this on the fly between campaign missions. Rock of Ages II: Bigger & Boulder is a must buy right out of the game if you love your games surreal, physics-based and packed with artistic genius that might roll over the heads of some gamers who won’t “get” the all-out insanity here at all. Granted, developer ACE Team has always gone out of its way to lace their games with stylistic influences that are far from the norm when it comes to pegging them with a particular style. But here, you get the kind of mind-bending overkill that’s constantly making you smile or burst out laughing because pulling off humor so well in a game like this makes it a total blast.

There’s a single player mode as well as co-op and online play for up to four. But at heart this is a spin on a few genres from racing to tower defense, to bowling with a dash of puzzle elements thrown in for good measure than can be fully enjoyed solo. Imagine if Rampart, Super Monkey Ball, and Marble Madness had a child raised on a steady diet of Monty Python animation while reading art history books for fun and you’re about a tenth of the way into what’s going on here. The game is also quite challenging and definitely not a cakewalk on the more difficult settings. That said, prepare to let the good times roll as you rock on with Atlas as he engages in rolling combat with assorted foes in not at all historically accurate settings.

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Blu-Ray Review: Madhouse (1981)

Madhouse_AV094Ovidio G. Assonitis’ 1981 horror flick Madhouse (aka And When She Was Bad and There Was a Little Girl and not to be confused with 1974’s Madhouse) is a good-looking but ultimately disappointing genre flick that throws a few interesting ideas around but doesn’t quite know how to fit them all together. But man, does it make a killer opening impression as well as pack in a few unsettling kills. That said, it’s easy to see why the film has its following despite some oddball flaws that keep it from being truly great.

That haunting opening still packs a wallop, though. As a creepy lullaby plays, one young twin gently rocks another in a darkened room before suddenly stopping to smash her in the face with a rock or brick of some sort. It’s definitely jarring, but actually has nothing to do with the film unless it’s meant to set the overall mood.

Yes, we find out that one sister had indeed been incessantly mean to the other throughout their childhood. But it’s Julia (Trish Everly), now a teacher for deaf children who was the victim of her sister Mary’s (Allison Biggers) cruelty. Julia’s got flawless skin and not a scratch on her face or body, but she’s bearing plenty of fears thanks to her sister making her early years a living hell. Given that there’s no mention of her receiving any sort of plastic surgery (she also mentions Mary’s dog used to bite her frequently), that opening seems open to interpretation.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Love Of A Woman

TLOAW_AA015I’d never heard of director Jean Grémillon (1898–1959), but thanks to Arrow Academy, I’m now well-schooled in one of his great films. While not flawless, The Love Of A Woman works just about perfectly if you’re a fan of the pot-boiling tear-jerker romance genre. Granted, it also works fantastically as an example of fine film work as Grémillon was a master behind the camera and there are some striking images here to behold.

When Dr. Marie Prieur (Micheline Presle) decides to take over the job from a well-aged doc at the end of his career on the small island of Ouessant, she’s met by wariness from the locals and made fun of by a part of a crew of men working on the island. After a practical joke by the men on their supervisor, André Lorenzi (Massimo Girotti) ends up in a fight where the doc has to show up to fix a broken nose, Lorenzi begins calling the doctor incessantly asking for a date. After some nudging by a never-married older schoolteacher (Gaby Morlay), The good doctor agrees to André’s request, but their date is ruined after a local child falls gravely ill.

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Blu-Ray Review: Alien Covenant

“There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense…”
– Katherine Waterston as Janet “Danny” Daniels, Alien Covenant

AC_BR.PNGIs the Weyland-Yutani Corporation made up of really stupid and incredibly single-minded people hell-bent on burning through piles of money and human bodies every chance they get or am I missing something here? Every time they try to get an certain cranky, homicidal alien life form for their research or whatever other purposes, bad things happen and just get worse. I could just blame the robots, but it hasn’t *always* been their fault.

The humans on the other hand? Ay-yi-yi, we’re talking idiotic in increasing percentages in what, over a century of trying to bag that xenomorph and its assorted relatives? That’s a pretty lousy batting average. folks. That said, the original Alien gets a big fat weekend pass for its crew’s carelessness because you got your average space truckers griping about low wages and such who had no idea about what was coming thrown into a situation they had no control of .  Although, what the hell was Ash’s plan had the Nostromo crew somehow killed off their unwanted passenger first?

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Granted, the current chronology of the Alien franchise means the events in Prometheus came first and brought us the unbalanced synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) who ends up even nuttier in Alien Covenant (more on that below). Then we get Ian Holm’s creepy, frustrated and malfunctioning Ash in 1979’s Alien followed by the Lance Henriksen’s helpful Bishop in Aliens and Alien 3, followed by Winona Ryder’s “Hey, huh? I’m an android?” part in Alien Resurrection. While Ridley Scott seems hell bent on making a few more Alien films that take place before the original, Alien Covenant manages to (wisely) swipe enough from the above films not shot by Scott to somewhat good effect.  Still, I’m somehow left  with more bad questions than good answers about a ton of important stuff.

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